Chile’s abortion rights movement faces uphill battle | Women’s Rights News

Chile’s abortion rights movement faces uphill battle | Women’s Rights News

Santiago, Chile – Siomara Molina stands on the steps of the Chilean National Library on a busy street in the heart of Chile’s capital.

Waving fists in the air and wearing green scarves, symbol of Latin American movement for abortion rights, Molina and dozens of women around him chanted: “Abortion yes, abortion no, that’s my decision”.

Abortion is illegal in Chile, a traditionally Catholic country, except in three limited circumstances: non-viable pregnancies, rape or risks to a mother’s health.

And a yearlong push by rights advocates to loosen those restrictions suffered a serious blow last year when The Chileans refused a new draft constitution that would have placed reproductive health and bodily autonomy as fundamental rights.

But despite the setback, an estimated 400,000 women gathered to mark International Women’s Day in Santiago and other cities this week, access to safe, free and legal abortion remains one of the main demands of the Chilean feminist movement.

“Today’s framework is one of the strictest in the world. It doesn’t give women the autonomy to make decisions,” said Molina, who is part of Chile’s largest feminist collective, Coordinadora Feminista 8M, which campaigns for a myriad of gender equality causes.

“Breaking social stigma is urgent, that we create actions that lead to dialogue and conversation,” he told Al Jazeera, confirming his belief in the power of protest. “The street is ours, and we will continue to protest.”

Protesters' feet hang over the side of a structure at a rally in Chile in favor of abortion rights
Demonstrators gather in Chile to protest in favor of abortion rights, among other things, on International Women’s Day on March 8, 2023 [Charis McGowan/Al Jazeera]

Pinochet legacy

This year is especially significant in the fight for abortion rights in Chile, as 2023 marks 50 years since General Augusto Pinochet carried out a bloody coup and seized power. During his 17-year rule, Pinochet imposed conservative, Catholic values ​​on the country, and in 1989, a year before the end of his regime, he banned abortion in all circumstances.

“The last thing Pinochet did was to ban abortion, and since then there has been a series of violations against women and girls who cannot decide. [over their own bodies],” said Molina. “We tried to change the framework, but we live in a country shaped by dictatorship.”

However, in the past three years, Chileans have taken significant steps to free themselves from the country’s perpetual dictator.

Triggered by rising living costs, Chile was rocked month of chaos in 2019, when Pinochet’s rigid 1980 constitution was singled out as a root cause of the lack of social welfare and gaping inequality. Social mobilizations are forcing politicians to hold a referendum to rewrite the constitution in 2020, which nearly 80 percent of Chileans approve.

The first draft of the new text was written by 154 representatives of popular halalwhich are mainly independents representing social and environmental movements, including members of Coordinator Feminista 8M.

The result is very progressive draft constitution which aims to enshrine equality and a range of human rights, but has been dismissed by critics as overly ambitious and complex. Consequently, the first draft was widely unpopular: 62 percent of voters it was rejected in a general referendum in 2022.

“Women in the country have lost a great opportunity,” said 19-year-old student Antonia, who was among thousands of protesters demanding abortion rights at the Women’s Day March in Santiago on Wednesday, and was not Al Jazeera was given his last name.

“Maybe it’s not perfect, but it’s a step in the right direction,” he said of last year’s proposed constitution. She said she knows many people who have had abortions at home using black-market pills.

Between 2017, when the three-exemption abortion law was passed, to January 2022, only 2,313 legal abortions were officially registered in Chile, which was lower than expected. Reproductive rights advocates say that people seeking an abortioneven if their cases are within the three allowed circumstances, continue to rely on underground networks due to stigma and judgment by medical professionals.

“The situation is complicated, expensive, and people need support. Legal abortion is a real need,” said Antonia.

Conservative parliament

Chile is currently in the process of drafting a second constitutional proposal. However, this time the political parties are guiding the process and the result is expected to be more moderate, ie reproductive rights can be left on the table.

For Molina and his colleagues, this is an alarming development: “There is a sense of hopelessness,” he said. “The 2022 draft opened the door [for us] through representation. Now [the process] happens behind closed doors.”

So while Argentina and Colombia passed laws on legalize abortion in recent years, the scenario in Chile remains uncertain. Despite the pro-abortion rights government in power, parliament remains conservative.

In November 2021, representatives tabled a motion to decriminalize any abortion performed up to 14 weeks of pregnancy, with 62 representatives in favor and 65 against.

Chile’s Women’s Minister Antonia Orellana admits that the failure of the rejected constitution has caused disappointments for a promise of leftist administration of President Gabriel Boric to legalize abortion. Speaking to CNN, he said the government intends to present a new motion, “but probably not this year”.

Meanwhile, an IPSOS study from 2022 found that 61 percent of Chileans believe that abortion should be legal within the first six weeks of pregnancy, although the number drops to 36 percent at the threshold of 14 week.

“It’s hard to pass [pro-abortion laws],” said Lieta Vivaldi, a lawyer and researcher specializing in sexual and reproductive rights at the Center for Applied Ethics in the faculty of philosophy and humanities at the University of Chile.

He told Al Jazeera that while the three-event law was “absolutely inadequate”, it was also not properly applied by health workers due to a lack of adequate training.

Demonstrators hold signs at a rally while sitting on the side of a building
Abortion rights advocates faced a setback last year when Chilean voters rejected a draft constitution that would have enshrined reproductive rights. [Charis McGowan/Al Jazeera]

Stigma continues to be prevalent among medical workers, who reserve the right to be “conspirators” and refuse to perform abortions, even within the three permitted circumstances, based on their personal beliefs. A survey of 57 public hospitals last year found that up to 49 percent of workers surveyed would exercise this right.

Vivaldi added that there is not enough information available to the public about abortion. Against this backdrop, he said the Women’s Day protests were “more important than ever” to break the scheme.

“We have to march with our green scarves because we’ve all had an abortion, or we know someone who has,” she said. “This is a reality in Chile. We are here and we have to continue the fight.”